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Jewish World Review May 17, 2000 / 13 Iyar, 5760

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports


The natural food threat -- SUMMER is just about here. And with its approach come thoughts of fabulous, juicy, sweet, inexpensive and available fruits and lots of delicious vegetables. Move over tangerines. Bring on the strawberries.

Another thing than can "move over" is all the organic products flooding grocery store shelves and, more and more these days, entire grocery store chains. You know what I mean -- the produce, bread products, meat and dairy items kept "pure" from herbicides, pesticides, preservatives and other synthetic chemicals.

Well, these organic items may be all the rage for their supposed "natural" benefits. But when I head to my local grocery store I avoid organic things like the plague. Why? Not just because such "natural" products often look awful and cost a lot more. But because I've got three little kids to worry about and I want the healthiest food available for them.

You see, the most likely cause of food-borne illness is not herbicides, pesticides and other synthetic chemicals. Although these have been peddled to today's American mom as dangerous, they've been shown over and over again by the Food and Drug Administration to be safe for her children at levels hundreds and thousands of times above what anyone could actually consume in a lifetime.

The primary cause of food-borne illnesses are actually "naturally occurring pathogens -- disease-producing organisms and their products," according to food safety expert Dr. Dean Cliver of the University of California, Davis.

In other words, it's the "natural" stuff that poses the biggest threats to children and for that matter the rest of us -- not just the potentially deadly e.coli, but also things like salmonella, listeria and a host of other all-natural bacteria and organisms sometimes contaminating the food, other times produced by the food itself.

Now it's true that America has the safest food supply in the world. And much of the problem of food-borne illness that we do have could be avoided by proper handling, refrigerating, cleaning, and cooking of food. The problem of many pathogens could be further, dramatically mitigated by irradiation, a process that sends a kind of harmless x-ray through food, safely destroying many harmful bacteria. (Food safety experts applaud such technology, recently allowed by the FDA for some products and already in use in others, while so-called food safety activists often oppose it.)

But the bottom line for me as a mom is that, as Dr. Ruth Kava of the American Council of Science and Health told me, "You're not going to get sick from the pesticides used in your salad. But you might get sick from the e. coli." Yes, produce from whatever its source can be contaminated through improper handling, and needs to be appropriately washed. But in addition, organic foods are often fertilized with animal manure, Kava explained, and that's a haven for the e.coli bacteria. Properly composted manure shouldn't pose a risk. But there are very few guidelines to ensure appropriate handling of animal fertilizers, and Kava knows of at least one outbreak of e. coli in organically grown lettuce. Synthetic fertilizers pose no such risk, so thanks, I'll go man-made.

I also prefer, for instance, to have fungicide used on the wheat in the bread products I buy. That's because I'd rather consume traces of the harmless synthetic chemical than be regularly exposed to aflatoxins -- a potent "natural" carcinogen -- in moldy bread. (Our food supply is rife with organic carcinogens that would have to be banned by the FDA if they were produced in factories instead of animals and plants.) Further, synthetic chemicals help to keep food fresher and make it last longer. That means it's more likely to get eaten and impart healthful benefits to my family than its "natural" counterparts that may well spoil too quickly.

Finally, as Kava explained there's no evidence that "organic" foods impart any particular health benefits whatsoever. Their big danger, she said, may be that they give those who buy and use them a false sense of added food safety, making those who consume them more careless when it comes to the proper care and handling of food.

So once again this season I'll take those conventionally grown big, red rosy summer tomatoes over their "natural" counterparts anyday. And I, and my family, will enjoy and benefit from every bite of them.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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